Nehemiah chapter five tells of the prophet coming to Jerusalem when the Jewish people are in distress. It was a time of famine, and the people were dependent on grain to feed their families. In order to afford the grain, however, they had to mortgage their fields, borrow money at high interest, and sell their sons and daughters into slavery. These unfair practices had come as a demand from another group of Jews.
Nehemiah hears the complaints of the people. He gathers the people together, goes to the officials, and lays out the charges. He tells them what they are doing is not right, that fellow people do not deserve to be treated this way. He demands the return of the land, houses, and interest that had been unfairly collected. The officials agree and sign a document tying them to the promise of fair practices.
This process, of seeing an unfair situation, gathering people together, pointing out the problems to leading officials, and holding them accountable for making change, is a powerful form of social action. Therefore groups such as Topeka JUMP use this process to solve issues in their own communities.
Elysee and I learned about this organization when we traveled to the Topeka area to begin our training on Peace and Nonviolence. Our host was Sarah Marsh, pastor at Tecumseh UMC. Sarah has a heart for social justice and kindly offered several sources to spark our thinking on what it means to be peacemakers.
Among these resources was Topeka Justice Unity and Ministry Project (JUMP). Topeka JUMP has been in operation for two years and brings together 18 Topeka-area ecumenical churches. It centers its work on the story of Nehemiah. Each year group leaders begin by hosting house meetings where they talk about issues they have noticed in their communities. By the end of this gathering stage, the groups have collectively determined which issue to focus on for the rest of the year. During the research phase, leaders delve further into the selected issue to understand its root causes, complications, and avenues to help. In the final stage, the organization brings its findings to community leaders with a clear action plan forward. At their Nehemiah Action Assembly, they ask leaders if they would be willing to take these steps to make a change.
In their first year of operation, Topeka JUMP focused on children living in poverty and the supports they need to be successful in schools. Unlike in the Nehemiah story, the superintendent did not agree with the gathered crowd. She resisted change by insisting there was no money to implement the requested programs, drawing on community sympathy. This left people with sympathetic feelings for the superintendent and some negative press for Topeka JUMP. Despite these frustrations, however, Topeka JUMP continued into their second year by focusing on job assistance for people with mental disabilities. The group has persisted in staying organized and being a recognizable community force.
Moving forward, Sarah Marsh is transitioning this summer to a one-year commitment in Lawrence, Kansas. In Lawrence, Sarah will work as a community organizer for Justice Matters. Justice Matters operates under a similar format to Topeka JUMP but is only a year old and includes 21 interfaith churches. Sarah is excited to learn about the organization, details, and commitment required in the early stages of an association like this. She is an inspiring example of how an individual can commit their lives to social justice work.
The examples of Nehemiah, Topeka JUMP, and Sarah Marsh show us the collective power of people. This work relates to the topic area of Peace and Nonviolence because it seeks methods of fulfilling community needs and resolving conflicts that prevent anyone from coming to harm. These stories also show, however, that this work is not easy. It involves resistance from those in charge, may be influenced by matters of money or media, and requires a good deal of dedicated organization. Though nonviolence is often thought of as being passive, it in fact requires dedicated action, organization, and courage.
These stories teach us that when we dialogue about problems, open space for information gathering, and develop avenues for change, we can make a difference.
By: Amy Kenyon